No One Heard Her Scream
South Padre Island, Texas
Somewhere in her heart, Danielle Montgomery knew this was wrong, and her guilt had a face. Momma's face. Memories of her mother flashed in her head with a steady and persistent rhythm.
"I swear, it's the Catholic guilt." She took a deep breath and fiddled with the senior class ring on her finger. "What's the use of regular confession if a girl has nothing new to say?"
She held a wrist up to the dim glow of a street lamp and looked at her watch. Twenty minutes late. Had she misunderstood his instructions? In the back of her mind, a bigger question plagued her. Why had she promised to meet him, like this?
He was a stranger who'd hit on her at the beach. The attention of a college boy made her feel special, especially in front of her classmates. She'd been a sucker for his gorgeous blue eyes, but she had a notion Momma wouldn't have been so impressed. Maybe that was the whole point. Now, Danielle paced by the side entrance to the club, flicking ashes from a cigarette, another rebellious rite of passage Momma wouldn't approve.
Then the feeling came againthe feeling of being watched. Stronger this time.
Her eyes strafed the alley behind her, narrow and murky with shadows. Nothing. She looked up to a handful of darkened windows. Someone might be checking her out, some pervert in the dark. You're being paranoid, Dani.
She drew a frazzled breath and took another drag off her cigarette, blowing smoke rings in the air. With the music thumping behind the metal door, she stared up into the night sky, thick with stars. A clear night. And the flickering points of light beat to the rhythm of the music. The bar rocked like he promised. But being underage, she had no hope of getting inside without his help. As she watched the smoke rings drift apart, another thought occurred to her.
"Can't believe this. No way the jerk ditched me."
Frustration wedged a lump in her throat. She tossed her cigarette butt and kicked a broken beer bottle with the toe of her shoe, hearing it clink across the asphalt. She'd left her girl friends back at the hotel, promising a full report if they covered for her with the chaperones. At this rate, unless she embellished the truth, there'd be nothing to say. So much for becoming the new legend at St. Joseph's High, back in San Antonio.
Unwilling to give up on her plans, she fanned herself with a hand. "Damn it. I bet my mascara is runny. Probably have friggin' raccoon eyes."
Muggy hot air clung to her skin and fused with perspiration to make her perfume smell stale. And worse, a tinge of sunburn radiated off her skin, intensifying the heat. Strands of her blond hair felt heavy and damp, clinging to her bare shoulders and back. Even without a mirror, she knew her hair had gone flat. The humidity and salty air off the ocean had done their usual damage. She'd spent two hours getting ready. Now, none of it mattered.
"Damn it, Brandon. Where are you?"
She thought about catching a cab back to the hotel, but in the pale light, she glanced down at her new clothes. She wanted him to see her in this outfit. Tight jeans would get his attention and the blue halter-top accentuated the color of her eyes.
All of a sudden, a sound came from the entrance to the alley, the drone of an engine and the crunch of tires. She looked up. Headlights blinded her. She squinted and raised a hand to block the glare. A dark van.
"Brandon?" she called. Her voice cracked. "Is that you?"
No answer. The driver got out and slammed the van door behind him. With the streetlight behind him, his face remained in shadow. Something was very wrong.
"He couldn't make it, sweet thing." Low and sinister, the man's voice skittered across her skin like spiders. "Will I do?"
Her breath caught in her throat. Danielle dropped her purse and turned to run. Maybe he'd settle for money. No such luck. From behind, she heard heavy footsteps, gaining on her. But as her scream pierced the night air, another man emerged from the darkness ahead, lunging at her. She tried to run by him, but he grabbed her arm, almost wrenched it out of socket.
"Nooo!" she shrieked.
The man spun her around. With no other choice, Danielle balled her fists, ready to fight. She kickedhardbut nothing fazed him. He backhanded her across the face. The shock jolted her skull and stars burst deep inside her brain, blinding her. She hurdled to the asphalt. Her exposed skin scraped the ground. The heels of her hands and her elbows scuffed bloody and raw.
Can't give up! She fought to stay conscious. You give up now, you die!
Two shadows preyed on her, eclipsing the light at the end of the alley. Danielle rolled onto her back, flailing arms and kicking legs at whatever moved. Strong hands gripped her, hard. One clasped her mouth. The weight of a knee to her chest cut off her air. Through her nose, she drew a gasp into burning lungs.
Suddenly, Danielle felt the stab of a needle in her neck. With the sharp pain, fear prickled her scalp and goose bumps raced across her skin. Her neck burned like acid. A deathlike stillness came, when her body fell slack, her arms limp by her sides.
Oh, God. Please. She screamed inside her head, but no sound came from her mouth.
A man's hand suffocated her. As the drug washed through her, once more she caught a glimpse of the night sky. Her eyes fixed upon the stars dotting the heavens, shimmering light. And like an old movie reel, images of mother's face flickered in and out of her mind. Momma's lips moved, out of sync, as she spoke. The sound of her voice muffled in the haze until darkness swallowed everything.
Oh, Momma. I'm so sorry. Bittersweet memories played cruel tricks with her mind. But as a tear drained from Danielle's eye, her thoughts drifted apart like smoke rings in the night sky. All she felt was the distant wetness of the drop. With great concentration, she focused on the sensation, picturing the tear as it rolled down her cheek. Buoyancy lifted her body, setting it adrift in a pitch-black void. Soon, the world would cease to exist. Time would come to a dead stop.
And in the darkness, even the memory of Momma's voice wouldn't reach her.
Central Police Station Gymnasium
Downtown San AntonioFive Months Later
Rebecca Montgomery battered the seventy-pound punching bag in blinding succession, ignoring the price her body would pay. Pain and physical exhaustion dulled the rage and guilt, but nothing would free her from it. Nothing.
Her life balanced on a single point in timepoised at a dead stopresistant to moving forward and incapable of going back. The night her little sister went missing rocked her world, but in the agonizing time that followed, her life changed forever. Becca could never make it right. Not now.
Danielle's body was never found.
She grimaced at the thought and intensified her workout. Not knowing what happened tore at her, day by day, driven by her own impotence to uncover the truth. Horrific thoughts emerged, dark and disturbing. Being a homicide detective prepared her for the worst-case scenario, but in doing so, it robbed her of hope. And for that, Becca hated herself.
Stay focused. Keep moving. Use the pain.
The initial shock morphed into a flood of emotions, from mind-numbing depression to blinding rage when she thought about the injustice. Nothing made the pain go away. She found herself desperate to regain control of her life. Wanting her body to feel something and her mind to release the demons.
Becca tightened her jaw until it hurt. Push through it. You gotta stay strong.
She welcomed her method of self-inflicted punishment, giving in to its rhythm. Even through elastic wrap and workout gloves, her fists ached with every jab. The bag swayed with each driving blow. The muscles in her legs burned from the early morning workout.
Circling, Becca picked up the pace and shifted weight to focus her whole body behind each impact. Her lungs heaved like a machine. Bobbing and weaving, she switched the speed and the combination of her punchesleft jab, straight right, left hook. With shoulder length dark hair pulled back, she ignored the loose strands stuck to her cheeks. Sweat trailed off her body and drenched her cotton tee and shorts. Becca had hit the zone.
Within Central Station on South Frio Street, she exercised most mornings in a large facility located in the basement of police headquarters. But her usual workout had taken on more significance. Like the sputtering vapor whistling from a kettle on boil, Becca needed to vent. And this was a good place to blow off steam.
She'd grown accustomed to the musk of body odor mixed with the persistent smell off the dank walls of the S.A.P.D. gymnasium. The steady clacking of weights and the drone of showers had become nothing more than white noise. Male voices echoed behind her, but one finally stood out.
"Hey, Montgomery! You've been shadowin' my case again and I don't like it."
Silence spread across the gym. All conversation died and the clank of weights stopped. She didn't have to turn around to know all eyes were on her.
Becca lowered her arms, gasping from the exertion of her penance. Sweat stung her eyes. After yanking off her gloves, she took her time, running scenarios through her mind. Let it go, Beck. She reached for a nearby towel and wiped it across her face, draping it over her neck. Don't let the jerk get to you. Becca knew what a reasonable person might do, but by the time she turned around, the word 'reasonable' vanished from her vocabulary.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Murphy." Her dark eyes took aim like a laser scope on a sniper rifle. "So why don't you mind your own business."
Becca turned her shoulder, but he pulled her around to face him.
"Oh, that's rich, coming from you. You're acting like a damned vigilante, and I'm supposed to mind my own business? Other lives are at risk here."
"I was wondering if you'd noticed that," she said. Moving closer, she picked lint off his T-shirt and lowered her voice, so not many would hear. "You see, I think you picture this case to be a fast track for your career. You probably figure if you play your cards right, this liaison gig to the F.B.I. might impress the feds. But you know what? Time is swirling down the drain and you got nothin' on my sister's killer or the other abductions. Good luck impressing anyone with that."
"Ooohhh," the men within earshot resounded in unison. Nervous laughter died.
Paul Murphy served as a catalyst to her mounting frustration. All she needed was an excuse to lash out and he gave it to her. The man didn't know when to quita dedicated cop, real determined. Good qualities, except when directed at her. Almost six-foot, the bastard wasn't much taller, but he looked like a wall of muscle, broad shoulders and thick neck. A regular fireplug.
"You're a pretty big talker. Maybe you think special treatment is in order, with what happened to your sister and all. But I can't have you stickin' your nose in my business, so knock it off." Murphy stepped closer, close enough for her to see every acne scar. His shoulders and arms glistened with sweat.
Like a chess player, she assessed her next moves. His nose had already been broken once. A second time wouldn't hurt his looks any. She contemplated rearranging his face with a well-placed upper cut, but several of the men drew into a tight circle around him. Although Becca wasn't sure whose side they were on, it didn't matter. Since her sister's case started, she'd made enemies. She'd pushed and pushed until walls were erected, keeping her out of the loop in the investigation that leaped jurisdictional boundaries. So Becca knewshe'd be on her own.
But that didn't stop her from tossing gasoline onto a smoldering fire. She heard the words coming from her mouth, the voice of a stranger.
"I don't expect anything special. I only want you to do your damned job."
"Well, you're gonna have to trust me to do that, Montgomery. Let me do my fuckin' job."
Fists at her sides, she stood her ground, leaving little room to maneuver. The last thing she wanted was to fight one of her own, but she couldn't back down either. Whoever threw the first punch would be the real loser. She knew it, so did Murphy. She could tell by his hesitation. Becca faced a real standofftwo hundred pounds worth.
"Break it up, you two. That's an order." The bellowing voice of Lieutenant Arturo Santiago forced her to stand down, but she hadn't gotten off the hot seat. "Montgomery, in my office. Now! And Murphy? You're next, after you hit the showers. I don't want to call in a HAZMAT team to fumigate after your sorry ass darkens my door."
A lieutenant always knew how to clear a room. Becca torqued her jaw and took a deep breath, trying to control the surge of adrenaline through her system.
Murphy shrugged and forced a grin. "Come on, L.T. I'm a ray of sunshine. No fumigatin' required." He backed off with a slight nod and pointed a finger at her. "This is my case, Montgomery. Are we clear?"
"Oh, I think we both know where we stand on the subject, yeah." She tugged into her sweats. "And I'll give your point all the consideration it's due."
Murphy stormed off in a huff, reading her message loud and clear.
Becca hadn't picked the fight, but she'd been prepared to end it. Practically egging Murphy on, she found herself wanting him to throw the first punch. And even more disturbing, she'd been disappointed when the lieutenant intervened. What the hell was wrong with her? She let him get to her, allowing her pent up tension to cloud her good judgment. Now she had to deal with the lieutenant in the privacy of his office.
She knew what he wanted to talk about and it had nothing to do with Murphy's sorry ass.
The office of Lieutenant Santiago smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a byproduct of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever worked to eliminate the odor.
With arms crossed, Becca sat in front of his desk, waiting. She imagined how her conversation with the lieutenant might play out, but none of the scenarios were in her favor.
Play the hand you've been dealt. No fancy moves.
Behind his beige metal desk with walnut veneer top, a clock hung on the wall and tapped the passing of time with a steady annoying beat. Tick, tick, tick. All part of the charade. Becca knew the man's game of intimidation, making her wait. So far, she had to admit it had worked pretty well. And with a corner office, the glass made the room feel like a damned sweatbox, even this time of day. She wiped a sheen of perspiration off her forehead.
To distract herself from the discomfort, she gazed around the room, taking in the details of the man's many accomplishments. Becca's eyes found a photo of Santiago with his family. Her lieutenant maintained a stern grimace, but the man had an infectious smile when he allowed it to show. Deepening age lines gave his face character. His short cropped, dark hair had receded to a crown worn like a laurel wreath around his head.
Shiny plaques of meritorious service, framed photos of him with the mayor, and coaching mementos from a local little league team reflected his life in service to the community and law enforcement. At one time, such recognition would have meant everything to her. But now, with Danielle gone, it all seemed so pointless.
"Jesus, Dani," she whispered. "Why the hell?"
Looking out the picture window to her left, she lost herself in the drama of sunrise. Filtered through a cheap set of venetian blinds, the morning sun pierced heavy cloud cover with spears of brilliant orange, a quiet skirmish. City buses and commuter traffic droned in the background. It reminded her life carried on and the world spun on its axis, whether she came along for the ride or not. A humbling notion.
"You take your coffee black, right?"
She jumped at the sound of his voice, an unsettling reaction. Lieutenant Santiago entered the office, holding two cups of coffee. The hot beverage would exacerbate the heat, but she could use the caffeine. Becca reached for the cup as he shut the door.
"Yes, sir." She took a sip, breathing in the aroma from the steam. "Thanks."
"This office can be a bit stifling in the mornings, but I kind of like it."
She drank in silence, waiting for him to start. Knowing the lieutenant, she wouldn't have to wait long.
"What happened? Is it true you've been bird dogging Murphy's work, conducting your own investigation?"
Becca avoided his stare, looking down into her cup. A lumbering silence filled the space between them, interrupted by the steady beat of the clock. Tick, tick... The lieutenant knew the answer to his question. And she didn't feel the need to incriminate herself.
"We already talked about this, Rebecca. Your involvement complicates the case. You're too close to it."
She looked up, narrowing her eyes.
"Maybe that's what the investigation needs, sir. A fresh set of eyes. Someone with a stake in this." She set her coffee down on the corner of his desk and crossed her arms. "Murphy is a good cop, but a real simple kind of guy. For him, thinking 'out of the box' is a radical concept, reserved for left-wing liberals, four-eyed geeks, and girlie-men."
Santiago raised an eyebrow and wrestled with his lower lip to thwart a smile.
"So why'd you let him get to you?" The man zeroed in on the heart of the problem. "You were ready to deck him."
She shrugged. "Seemed like a swell idea at the time."
"Not good enough, Rebecca." He leaned forward, elbows on his desk. "Look, I know this has been rough on you, not being more involved in Danielle's case. I can't imagine how I'd feel if something happened to one of my kids."
His face softened in empathy. "Don't force me to stop you, Becca. My heart wouldn't be in it. But you gotta see, there's a bigger picture here. And I can't allow you to jeopardize this investigation."
"But my sister's case is getting lost in the shuffle of these abductions, sir." She pressed, her voice laden with emotion. "I gotta speak for her. I don't see anyone else doin' it."
His face settled into his usual stern expression.
"Need I remind you that the circumstances surrounding Danielle are a little different from the other two victims in this case? Yeah, all three lived here and were abducted from class outings. But that's where the similarities end. Your sister left a trail after Padre Island, Becca."
His raised voice merged with an abrasive creak in his chair. The sound made her skin scramble like hearing fingernails screech across a chalkboard. Lately, her nerves were raw, but her revulsion had more to do with what he said. And her lieutenant added insult to injury by harping on his version of the truth.
"Look, you gotta face facts. Dani used her credit card at two gas stations and a motel. And we had an eyewitness sighting and a video to back this up. It looks like she ran away from home and hooked up with the wrong people."
An unreliable witness and one blurry video did not stack up to much in Becca's book. Even if the young girl in the videotape looked as if she wore Danielle's new clothes, identified by her sister's closest friends, it amounted to circumstantial evidence at best.
"But don't you see, Art? She'd never do that. Sure she had a rebellious streak, but what kid her age doesn't? Hell, you should've seen me."
Becca bolted out of her chair and stalked toward his office window, holding back the anger welling deep in her belly. She'd heard this account before and it always made her furious, but talking about Dani in the past tense gnawed at her gut like a cancer. It didn't feel right.
"You? A rebel? Hard to imagine," he sniped.
"Sarcasm duly noted, but hear me out." She turned to face him. "I think someone stole her credit card, and set up a bogus trail for us to follow. I think they wanted to throw us off what really happened to her."
"And what's your theory on that?"
Tick, tick, tick... Becca hated to admit it. She was clueless as Murphy on what happened to her sister.
At first, Danielle's disappearance looked like the random act of a stray predator. After interviewing Dani's friends and extracting the truth, investigators closed in on a local hot spot. Tire tracks, signs of a struggle, and spots of her sister's blood marked the crime scene. And the college kid she was supposed to meet? He had a damned, rock solid alibi. So the search for Danielle began. Local law joined forces with a contingent from San Antonio to scour the neighborhood for witnesses. Reward posters and flyers went out. Volunteers and local pilots searched for signs of a body. Radio stations and television news teams blitzed the story. None of the efforts paid off.
In between a few promising leads, many hoaxes were investigated, draining the resources of the police. Eventually, evidence of her credit card use trickled in, the sightings leading the search away from Padre Island. Then her worst fear. A motel room splattered with bloodtoo much blood loss for anyone to survive. At first, she was in denial that the blood belonged to her sister. But the tests came back a match. Dani died in a cheap motel room. No body found.
Two other abduction cases followed, with fresh leads. And in the turn of a page, Dani's story became old news. The media moved on.
With Becca relegated to the status of family member, she'd been kept at arm's length from the investigation. Her pushing investigators and double-checking leads had alienated her from the insiders to the case. Censored verbal reports gave her limited information, so she'd resorted to stealing peeks at Murphy's case book. Now that looked like a dead end. The word 'powerless' didn't begin to describe how she felt.
And looking into the eyes of her despondent mother on the day they buried Danielle's empty coffin cast Becca into a new brand of hell. A part of her died that day.
"I don't have any theories, not yet." Becca slumped against the window frame. "But if Dani's case is so different than the others, maybe I can conduct my own"
"You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" Lieutenant Santiago clenched his jaw, a familiar gesture. "Sit. Now."
His command gave no room for interpretation. This was not an invitation to be declined. Becca heaved a sigh and trudged back to her seat, mustering a rebellious slouch.
"The F.B.I. smell the work of a human trafficking ring with connections to San Antonio. And like flies to a pile of horse shit, they're buzzing over my jurisdiction. I don't need to tell you how that makes me feel. Pompous bastards." He furrowed his brow. "With you poking your nose into this, the feds have already raised their objections. Your link to Danielle could pose a problem for the prosecution if they find a connection, especially if a defense attorney gets wind of your involvement with evidence gathering. Do you want that?"
"I don't care about any damned court case, sir. I want justice for Dani."
"And that's the problem. Don't make me out to be the bad guy here. If there's some nut bag abducting and killing young women, it's my joband yoursto put 'em away." A sad expression etched his face. "Don't make me force you to take time off. You and I both know how you'd spend it. I'd rather keep an eye on you myself."
With his brow furrowed, he leaned across the desk, concern overshadowing his personal disappointment. She owed Lieutenant Santiago so much. The man had been a mentor to her. Interfering in Danielle's case had been a flagrant betrayal of his trust and defied her sense of responsibility as a cop. Still, she had no choice. Straightening up in her chair, she waited to hear his version of a compromise.
"Before you hit the showers, get with dispatch. They got a call about skeletal remains found at the old Imperial theatre, the one that just burned down. For now, I'm assigning you to the Cold Case Squad to handle it. On temporary loan."
"Is this an order, L.T?"
"Does it need to be?" He matched her tone, ramped up the attitude. He'd lost his patience with the caring father routine. "Look, you've got a chance to give someone else closure here. And you must know how important that is. The pile of bones at the Imperial used to be someone's family. You do your job, I'll do what I can to keep you apprised of Murphy's progress myself. Deal?"
Becca crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe, staring at him. He had played the guilt card like a master, no way for her to trump it. She cocked her head and crooked a corner of her mouth, watching as he basked in his victory.
He returned her smile. "If you need anything, or just want to talk, let me know."
"Thanks, L.T. I'll remember that."
Becca left his office and headed for dispatch, her mind working on what to do next. Lieutenant Santiago had been right about one thing. Closure was important. It would be worth any sacrifice.
The heat from the sun burned off the morning haze, but an early cool front brought a stiff breeze to jostle the trees. Real Texas weather. A taste of winter might come on the heels of sweltering heat or monsoon rains. This time of year, it paid to be a regular Girl Scout, prepared for anything.
Becca turned off Commerce onto St. Mary's Street and found a parking lot across the street from the Imperial Theatre. She found a spot next to one of the fire department trucks. Once outside her vehicle, Becca tugged at the collar of her white oxford shirt and buttoned the jacket to her navy pantsuit, preparing to go inside. Becca removed her sunglasses and slipped them into the pocket of her jacket and clipped her I.D. badge on a lapel. She stared across the street to assess the damage from the front.
Yellow crime scene tape whipped in the breeze, a flag for curious onlookers. Several people lingered on her side of the street and down a block or two. What they expected to see, she had no idea. For all they knew, it had only been a fire. News of the body had not been released. Still, morbid curiosity drew them like flies to road kill.
But one man stood out from the rest.
Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, the guy looked like he stepped off the cover of Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine with his swarthy good looks. G.Q. had mongo bucks written all over him. Wearing dark glasses, he leaned against a deep blue Mercedes S 600 parked along the street, hands in his pants pockets. Even without seeing his eyes, she knew he spotted her, his head turning with interest as she stood on the curb. He didn't look like the typical gawker who hoped to catch a glimpse of some action from the old burned out building. Not this guy. He was anything but typical. And another facet of him caught her eye. Ever since she left her Crown Vic, she had become his focus, holding his complete interest.
"The feeling's mutual, gorgeous," she whispered. "But I'm not in the mood."
Becca shifted her gaze to the Imperial. The theatre bore a certain dignity, even covered in layers of soot. The fire had consumed much of its striking architecture and intricate detail with no regard for history. Prior to the blaze, she believed the theatre had been left derelict. A real shame.
Seeing it now from the outsidenothing more than a blackened carcassprovoked her already sullen mood. She read somewhere the recently declared historic building had been slated for restoration, but the work hadn't begun yet. Now, it never would be.
From what she remembered of the theatre, Baroque, Mediterranean and Spanish Mission influences had inspired the design. Conveying theatre patrons to a storybook villa, arches with ornate columns, tile rooftops, and a bell tower surrounded the stage. Walls were transformed into steeples with colorful glass windows. Rising above the quaint setting, a vaulted deep blue 'sky' twinkled with countless stars. And clouds drifted overhead like mist, all part of the architect's illusory world.
With a young Danielle in tow, Becca had been in the theatre as a teen, the treasured memory of an outing with her late grandmother. The experience had forever left its mark. At the time, she and Dani imagined the Imperial to be a grand palace, home to a legendary king and queen with magical powers. Crystal chandeliers soared high above the plush seats, making the gilded walls glisten in the pale light. She remembered holding her breath when the lights dimmed, eyes wide. With its elaborate brocade borders, the velvet curtain rose over the stage. Elegant ballerinas performed the Nutcracker, looking even more enchanting on the ornate stage. Pure magic.
Now all that was gone, and so was Danielle. Her heart ached with profound loss.
Ignoring G.Q. still standing by his pricey car, Becca crossed the street and walked through what remained of the front door. After she flashed her badge to the uniform stationed at the entrance, he handed her a protective helmet with Plexiglas visor, standard issue. She reached into the pocket of her jacket for a fresh pair of latex gloves and made sure she had her casebook, pen, and flashlight.
Inside, a dank smoldering odor filled her nostrils. Water damage fused with the fire's destruction. Squinting, Becca adjusted to the dark interior and hit the switch to her Kel-light. The beam of light stretched into the void, capturing fine particles of dust in its wakea reminder why the air felt thick and smelled stale. The scorched shell captivated her attention, a macabre landscape in black and gray. Past the lobby, an eerie hum drifted through the cavernous space, leading her like a beacon.
She heard voices ahead, the words garbled by the distance and the steady whir coming from a portable power generator. With the electricity out to the building, the generator would allow them to work by floodlights. Crime scene techs were hard at work, bagging and tagging evidence, and taking digital photographs.
But one section of the theatre caught her eye. Bright lights flooded a murky and gaping cavity in a stone wall to the right of the stage. A group of men gathered near the opening, their silhouettes casting elongated shadows with every flash of the camera. As she approached, one of the men turned.
"Hey, Becca. Was wondering who'd get the short straw." Team leader for the crime scene technicians, Sam Hastings grinned as Becca snapped on her latex gloves.
Tall and lanky with curly brown hair receding at his temples, the senior C.S.I. stepped aside for her to get a closer look. Details of his face faded from view as he moved deeper into the shadows.
"Short straws are all I get lately." Skeletal remains were uncommon. Becca crooked her lips into a reasonable facsimile of a smile. "Before I forget, have one of your guys record the crowd outside, especially the suit by the Mercedes. And get his tag."
"Good idea. Firebugs like to watch the aftermath of their handiwork. The guy look suspicious?"
"Let's just say he stands out from the crowd, but I want the license tags and faces of everyone out there." She bent to get a closer look and dropped to a knee.
One of the techs knelt by the masonry and removed another stone, setting it on the floor beside him. A couple of bricks were already bagged. She knew anything could be evidence, including the mortar used. It might give some indication of a timeline.
With flashlight in hand, Becca kept her eyes focused on the dark hole. She found herself staring into the hollow eyes of a skull. Its jaw gaped open in a grotesque scream. The smell of old death lingered enough to fill the tomb with a stale earthy stench, nothing more.
"So, tell me something I don't know, Sam."
"Okay." He took a moment to think. "When I was ten, a kid half my size made me cry when he threatened to hit me."
Becca turned toward him, an eyebrow raised.
"Not exactly what I had in mind, but thanks for sharing." She fought a smile. "How did they find the body?"
"Firefighter swingin' a mean axe took out the first bricks, enough to find somethin' staring back."
Once again, Becca glanced over her shoulder. Before she made a smart remark, Sam beat her to the punch, "Hey, if I'd gone the fireman route, I would've had to make a trip home to change my shorts. But I'm your basic jaded C.S.I. guy. Nothing much surprises me any more."
"I hear ya." Becca shifted focus deep into the hole and noticed something disturbing. "What do we have here? He's got no fingers?"
"Phalanges are the first to go. Over time, small bones drop off," Sam replied. He nudged close to her shoulder and used his flashlight to locate the bone fragments in the bottom of the cramped space. "It's gonna take us awhile to remove the skeleton. We'll extricate the rest in one piece if we can."
He changed direction of his beam to reveal the skull and spoke aloud as if he were making a mental checklist.
"We don't get many skeletal remains to I.D. We may have to bring in a specialista forensic anthropologistmaybe try and reconstruct facial features. We'll collect some Mitochondrial D.N.A. and retain it to compare against any known relation to the deceased. That'll be your job to find next of kin."
"My best hope to speed up the I.D. process will be to check into missing persons. The body had to be buried in this theatre while it was under construction or during some kind of renovation. Maybe that'll help narrow the time period for my search. We could get lucky."
She made notes in her casebook. With a grimace, she rested an elbow on her knee and said, "I came here as a kid to see a ballet once. It really creeps me out to know that while the crowd gave a standing ovation, this guy was buried in the wall near the stage."
"Yeah, back in the day, I heard it was murder to get a front row seat."
Becca shut her eyes and shook her head. A collective groan rumbled through the techs standing behind her.
"Everyone's a critic." The C.S.I. team leader shrugged.
"Hey, Sam. Wouldn't the smell of the body be detected once it was time for curtain call at the Imperial?"
"Yeah, but construction or renovation work takes time, right? Crews coming in and out. Time for a body to decompose depends on temperature, moisture, and accessibility to insects. In the summer, an exposed human body can be reduced to bones in nine days. Now granted, this type of set up would've taken longer, but it's conceivable only bones attended opening night. No tux required."
With more of the wall removed, he craned his neck and directed his flashlight into the makeshift tomb. "Looks like we're gonna have to rethink the gender thing. Check out those hips."
With a tilt of her head, Becca turned to stare at the senior C.S.I. "You need to hang out with people who're partial to breathing. In case you haven't noticed, this is a pile of bones. What hips?"
"I used the word 'hips' for your benefit. I didn't think'Hey, check out that sciatic notch'would get your attention. Am I right?"
When she scrunched her face, Sam explained and pointed to the lower vertebrae.
"The sciatic notch spreads as a woman gets older, allowing the pelvis to make room for childbirth. If I had to guess, this sacrum and pelvic rim are from a young female. And the partially erupted molars back me up. I'd say the victim was late teens to early twenties at time of death." He pointed a finger to the brow of the skull. "Another thing, check out the forehead. It's almost vertical. Men's tend to slant more, develop a brow ridge. And with the narrow mandible, definitely female."
"So my 'he' is a 'she'?"
"Yep, looks like it."
When Becca peered deeper into the stone vault, markings caught her eye.
"Hey, what's this?" She inched closer and directed her flashlight to the left. "Oh, God. Are those what I think they are?"
Jagged scratches lined the inside of the stone vault. Layers of them overlapped in no discernible pattern. Thin striations mixed with deeper gouges. She felt the group of men move closer. Silence made the air feel thick and oppressive. Motionless. With her discovery, it became harder for her to breathe. Finally, Sam confirmed what she already suspected. By the solemn tone in his voice, she knew it struck him too.
"Scratches. Probably from her fingernails. Looks like she was buried alive."
Becca closed her eyes to block the images, a gruesome strobe effect triggered in her mind. Tortured screams. A mouth gasping for air. Sheer panic. She pictured Danielle dying an unthinkable death, walled away in darkness with no one to hear her cries for help.
"No one heard her scream." She hadn't realized she'd spoken the words aloud until Sam consoled her with his reply.
"Until now." He sighed and stared into the hole.
Danielle's face haunted her. As a homicide detective, Becca had witnessed the perverse nature of the human condition, carried to the extreme. But the varying degrees of cruelty one human being inflicted upon another never ceased to amaze her. The day it did, would be the day she'd quit. Still, she knew this case would brand her psyche for years to come.
"You all right?" Sam nudged her shoulder, his voice quiet and reassuring.
It took her a long while to answer.
"Yeah. I'll be okay." The words coming from her mouth sounded trite and mechanical, lacking any real conviction.
"Think I found something to cheer you up." He reached into the tomb and navigated through the tight space. After shining a light on what he retrieved, he said, "Maybe a lucky charm."
Sam held a thin necklace with a trinket dangling from it. The metal had been discolored with the years and dirt clung to the delicate chain.
"What's that?" She narrowed her eyes to get a better look at the jewelry she took from his hand. Holding the evidence toward the light, she answered her own question. "In the shape of a heart. If this isn't some cheap bauble, it might lead somewhere. Good eye, Hastings."
Sam smiled. "Yeah, my wife says I have an eye for the expensive stuff. It's pretty tarnished, but it doesn't look cheap to me. And if I'm not mistaken, there are small diamond chips on it too."
Becca stood and handed the necklace back, making another note in her book.
"Who's the arson investigator?" she asked.
"Rick Gallegos is workin' lead. You know him?" When she nodded, he pointed to the far wall. "Try over there."
Before she left, the C.S.I. grabbed her arm and pulled her aside, out of earshot from his crew. Concern lined his face.
"You and your family are in my prayers...if there's anything I can do."
She smiled. "With what we do, prayers seem like a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage."
"Don't get me wrong. I come from a long line of scuba diving Protestants. Most of my family only surface on church holidays. But I found it...helps me."
"Thanks, Sam. You're a good friend, but really, I'm all right. I'll be in touch on our Jane Doe."
Complete denial. She heard it in her voice. 'I'm all right', my ass. Her life had mired in her sister's tragedy and she knew it. But the murder victim's family needed her to function on all cylinders. They deserved her best.
"Guess prayers can't hurt," she muttered as she walked away. "Maybe God still listens to other people."
Gallegos was one of the best arson investigators with the city. The man had extensive experience and training with an education in chemicals. He'd also been part of a bomb squad at another police station. With the pairing of Rick Gallegos and Sam Hastings on this investigation, maybe she hadn't drawn the short straw after all.
Rick was her height with thick dark hair and his skin the color of rich mocha. His eyes were almost black and he possessed a piercing stare, the kind that unnerved the guilty. But for those having the pleasure to work with him, he reserved warmth and good humor in his gaze. A diligent investigator and a thorough one. She liked him from the first day they met, several years ago now.
"Hey, Rick." She lowered the beam of her flashlight, leaving his face partially lit. "This case is gonna be tough enough. Glad you're working the fire. How's it coming?"
"Getting close to wrapping up, but I've got something for you to see. Follow me, Becca." He waved a hand and led her through the burned rubble.
He took her toward a back door and into the bright sunshine. Becca shielded her eyes with a hand, but it felt good to be out from under the oppressive darkness of the charred Imperial. Parts of her skin caked with a layer of dust. Feeling gritty, she ran a hand over her chin, only to find her gloves smeared with soot. No telling what she'd find on her white blouse. Just great! She'd clean up in the car. Today wasn't her day. Becca filled her lungs with fresh air and let Rick talk.
"Arsonists believe fire destroys evidence, but not if an investigator knows what to look for. They forget only the vapor burns, not the liquid part of the fuel. So if any material is saturated with an accelerant, the wetness prevents the cloth from burning, leaving behind evidence for us to connect the dots. If we match the fabric to something on the premises of a suspect, we've got a link to the crime scene."
"So what have you learned so far?"
"I've been examining patterns of burn, the structure of the building itself, the ventilation factors, and what fuel loadings were available. The Imperial was a veritable powder keg waiting for someone to strike a match." He brought her toward a large garbage receptacle set too close to the back wall of the building. "But I found some 'pour patterns' in and around this dumpster. They look promising."
He squatted near a pile of trash and pointed, continuing with his preliminary findings.
"Incendiary fire. A candle ignited the blaze and served as a time delay. It looks like some type of liquid accelerant was used. More than likely gasoline, but I'll confirm that when I run it through the gas chromatograph. See here? It burned in a way that remained visible after the fire." Rick pointed to the burn pattern, or rather, the absence of burn. "I'm still collecting evidence, enclosing what I find in air-tight containers to prevent cross contamination and keep the integrity of the accelerant intact. But so far, this looks like arson, deliberately set."
Arson added a wrinkle of complication, but a thought registered in her mind.
"Guess if the fire hadn't happened, we may never have found our Jane Doe buried in the wall. Whoever set the blaze may help us find justice for our murder victim. At least we have a shot at it. Kind of an interesting turn of fate, I'd say."
The irony appealed to her. Becca handed her helmet to the fire investigator.
"I'll leave the stylish head gear with you. Send me a copy of your findings. And thanks, Rick."
"Will do." He nodded and headed back into the building.
Normally, the owner of the Imperial Theatre would be considered a strong suspect for a fire caused by arson. As a rule, the fraudulent act was committed to collect insurance money, especially if the policy amount exceeded the value of the real estate. That fit the bill for the Imperial in its current state of disrepair. But if the property owner had anything to do with the body buried in the theatre, an arson fire would be the last thing the owner would want. An arson investigation would only shed light on a very deep, dark secret.
The pieces to this puzzle didn't make senseyet. But there was nothing like a good mystery. No matter how her investigation proceeded from here, the owner of the Imperial Theatre would be high on her interview list.
Becca jotted some notations into her casebook and walked around the building, still thinking about the murdered woman. When she rounded the corner at the front of the theatre, she caught sight of her mystery man's Mercedes, but he wasn't in sight. For an instant, she felt
"Disappointed, Beck? Get over yourself. With my luck, I'll find him in one of the mug books back at headquarters, with priors as long as my arm." She heaved a sigh.
Reaching into her jacket pocket, she retrieved her car keys and walked across the street. After unlocking her car door, she noticed movement near the corner of the Imperial. Becca recognized the man, even under his designer shades. But instead of crossing the street toward his expensive ride, the guy headed in the opposite way, as if he had somewhere else to be. Doubts crept into her mind. Maybe the Mercedes wasn't his.
No way! The man definitely fit the ride.
"So what are you up to, G.Q.?" She pursed her lips and thought for a moment, giving in to her impulse to follow. With enough people around, she could blend in and tail him from her side of the street. Mostly, Becca was too damned curious to let him walk away. She slipped on her sunglasses. On instinct, she felt for her Glock, lodged in a holster at the small of her back.
Speaking to her weapon, Becca muttered, "Let's you and me take a stroll, shall we?"
© Jordan Dane